September 04, 2009

Vietnam Redux

My guess is that we're fighting in Afghanistan because the military establishment always demands at least one hot war in progress, and now that Iraq has finally petered out (because of Nouri al-Maliki's treacherous snookering of George W. Bush), Afghanistan is the only candidate. The Pentagon needs wars for lots of reasons. They're essential for training soldiers in actual combat, for keeping the vast armies of mercenaries under contract employed (many of the mercenaries are former military lifers seeking an upgrade in pay and working conditions, plus that Bondsian License to Kill), and most of all, as a laboratory for all the weapons and gadgets produced by defense contractors. Officers get promoted, they collect war stories, they acquire battle credibility.

This kind of rationale does not play well on the political scene, of course. We're not that far gone in cynicism yet, though we're working on it. The original Afghan meme, sold to the American public 8 years ago, was that Afghanistan was a "safe haven" for al-Qaeda where it could train terrorists and plot attacks on the United States. In the wake of 9/11, almost all Americans went along with this Dick&Jane story read to us by W&Dick. I can recall that even Al Franken, when he had his radio show on Air America, steadfastly supported the war in Afghanistan, probably with his run for the Senate in mind. It became doubly important to support the Afghan venture after Iraq was invaded: being against both wars was the sure mark of the lily livered liberal.

I was against both wars from the start, as was the Sage of Boynton, the 92-year old veteran of the Pacific campaign in WW II. The Sage thought that we "should do nothing," meaning we should not have used conventional military forces for an invasion simply because this is what we're set up to do. This, indeed, was the rational course. The terrorists who carried off 9-11 were all dead. They did not plan the 9-11 attack in Afghanistan. The central plotters (the four pilots) began their plotting in the late 1990's in Hamburg, Germany, where they attended mosque together. These facts are confirmed in the Report of the 9-11 Commission, which I have read. Rumors of their trips to Afghanistan are most often attributable to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom we now know was waterboarded 183 times by the CIA. The circumstances of his interrogation are curiously absent from the official 9-11 Report. Even if Khalid was gurgling the truth, there is no particular reason why the four pilots, or the 15 muscle hijackers (who were almost all from Saudi Arabia), needed to travel to Afghanistan for training. What is it about the jungle gyms there that were essential to overpowering unarmed stewardesses or opening unlocked cockpit doors?

As far as Osama bin Laden was concerned, a warrant had been out for his arrest for years prior to 9-11. He was the financier, the money source of a kind of Terrorist Foundation, who passed on terrorism proposals and made funding grants. Peter Bergen's book on bin Laden is the best source of info I have seen on this question. I doubt seriously that bin Laden kept his money in an Afghan bank, with no offense intended for his Taliban "hosts." He was a canny investor and businessman who shorted the U.S. airline and tourist industries on the eve of 9-11 and then cleaned up on the mayhem he caused, a kind of Terrorist Insider Trading. But his "training camps" or his residence could have been taken out with cruise missiles, as Clinton had attempted before. What was the purpose of a full-scale military invasion and an 8-year occupation? Al-Qaeda and bin Laden did not need Afghanistan; it's just where they happened to be (some of them, anyway).

In addition to the rationales given above, Bush&Cheney wanted to give the definite appearance of doing something. They wanted to invade Iraq and desperately sought connections to 9-11, but these connections could only be made in Cheney's mind, and that wasn't enough even for the American populace thirsting, in an omnidirectional way, for revenge. So Afghanistan would have to do, because Big Dog Osama was there and he would suffice for the casus belli. Then Rumsfeld, Bush & Cheney (Moe, Larry & Curly) totally screwed up the invasion and let Osama get away, so there was no one left for the Taliban to harbor.

Eight years on, and we've revised the Mission Statement a few times to keep the Predator drones flying and mercenaries shooting. We're now nation building, keeping an eye on Pakistan, and denying al-Qaeda safe haven within Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, which somehow have survived 8 years of warfare and siege by the mightiest nation on Earth. But maybe 8 years more will do the trick. Barack Obama supports the war for the same reason Al Franken did: O is the President of a militarized nation, and it won't do to be against even stupid wars if it's the only one you've got going. You can be the Commander-in-Chief of a peacetime army if you're Dwight Eisenhower and have already demonstrated your mettle in actual combat, but not if you're Bill Clinton, W Bush or Barack Obama and left all the combat to others when you had the chance.

57% of the American populace now opposes the Afghan whatever it is. I guess, this being a democracy and everything, we should see a wind-down and a denial of funding from the Democratic House. Yeah, I know. Ha ha. That's a good one.

September 03, 2009

Love It or Leave It

1 People's Republic of China[5]1,332,750,000September 3, 200919.65%Chinese Population clock
2 India1,168,460,000September 3, 200917.23%Indian Population clock
3 United States307,301,000September 3, 20094.53%Official USA Population clock
4 Indonesia229,965,0003.39%UN estimate
5 Brazil191,796,000September 3, 20092.83%IBGE projection
6 Pakistan167,336,000September 3, 20092.47%Official Pakistani Population clock
7 Bangladesh162,221,0002.39%UN estimate
8 Nigeria154,729,0002.28%UN estimate
9 Russia141,862,000September 3, 20092.09%Russian State Statistics Service
10 Japan127,590,000August 1, 20091.88%Official Japan Statistics Bureau estimate
11 Mexico107,550,6971.59%INEGI estimate

National Population Statistics of Mexico[6]

12 Philippines92,222,660mid 20091.36%

National Statistics Office medium projection

13 Vietnam85,789,573April 1, 20091.27%Official preliminary results of the 2009 census
14 Germany82,046,00
I was video witness recently to the unedifying spectacle of that guy named Dennis (Kneale, I think) of CNBC doing battle with "econobloggers" and other doomsayers, meaning (in his focus) the troublemakers at zerohedge, who harp a lot on the Federal Reserve and what its online community think of as the "phony" American economy. Dennis (who looks like the Muppet Big Bird, or maybe Buddy Holly, if Buddy had lacked all charisma and talent) was having none of it. America is back, it's great, and anyone who doesn't think so should leave, because there's no place as wonderful as the USA.

I don't know why conservatives always come back to that: if you think there are problems here, you should go somewhere else. This sounds little better than a formula for reducing the country to a population of deluded people. Anyone with any criticism, valid, constructive or not, should get out. Personally, I've always thought the United States is a pretty nice place, and I've traveled around some, including to off-the-beaten-track places in the former Eastern Bloc, such as Lithuania, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. I've also spent a fair amount of time in France and Germany, somewhat less in Italy, a smattering in other European locales.

In making any comparisons, you have to begin with a few caveats. First, there will generally be a bias toward where you're from, because familiarity, nostalgia and connections count for a lot in human happiness. So except in extreme cases, such as, say, North Korea, you're likely to begin with a preference for your homeland. And moving to a foreign country at any point past the "main part" of your life (youth and your prime earning years) means you'll never really experience what it's like to live in a foreign country. So Big Bird's whole thesis is kind of dumb. Americans stay here for lots of reasons unrelated to thinking it's necessarily the one, the only, great place to live.

The second thing is you can't simply compare any country to any other country. For example, there is the population question. The United States is the 3rd largest country in the world, with about 307 million people (600 million if you count illegal aliens). The two larger countries are of course China and India, and I don't want to live in (a) a communist dictatorship or (b) a place where Bollywood is considered a center for the arts. Huge countries are not just quantitatively different from smaller countries, they're qualitatively different. Smaller countries are governable, for one thing, and usually have a strong sense of national identity and common purpose. These features allow such countries (Denmark, France, Germany) to provide general social security and amenities for their populations. These qualities have been lost in the United States, of course, which is riven by partisan, religious and regional divides. In a lot of ways, we're a country in name only, with a militarized security state holding things together through fear, as in China. It's the reason we've always got at least a couple of wars going these days - to remind us of what we're about. This ain't Norway, baby.

But I would say that one must go all the way down to Germany, with a population of about 84 million, before I could find a candidate where, other things being equal, I would consider living. Of course, for reasons already mentioned, other things can never be equal, because there is no other country where I spent my youth and established all my memories. Plus, my German is just not that gut. In the Happiest Place on Earth (Denmark, not Disneyland, with a population of 5.5 million, [again-Denmark, not Disneyland, except maybe on July 4]), one could probably conduct a better test of the Big Bird Thesis: would you leave Copenhagen or the Danish countryside in order to move to Riverside, California? The automatic preference for the United States which the CNBC dork assumes might not be so obvious.

But among the top 13 countries in the world, in terms of population? No contest, I want to be here, in America the Beautiful. Not Pakistan, Nigeria or Indonesia. Brazil? Well, maybe forty years ago...

August 31, 2009

Congress Tries to Fake its Way through Health Reform

The amazing Matt Taiibi is out with a new take-no-prisoners essay on health care "reform" in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, and it's definitely worth the read. His main point is that our thoroughly corrupt Congress and curiously passive President are now in a quandary about how to wriggle out of this job without upsetting their corporate paymasters, yet while convincing the general public they did something. Unfortunately, there just isn't any way to deny that the problem of health care in this country is MASSIVE, and yet all they're really set up to do anymore is to give a semi-convincing pantomime of "caring" etc., while most of them actually remain solely obsessed with getting reelected.

Taiibi breaks the process down into steps, or stages of degeneration, beginning with Obama's decision at the outset to give the game away by punting on Single Payer. All the Rube Goldberg machinations in the five bills meandering their way through this circus, staffed by what Taiibi calls "second-rate country lawyers and mall owners," are hopelessly complicated because Obama and the Democrats fled as fast as they could away from this obvious solution, out of fear of upsetting gigantic campaign donors from the Pharma, insurer and Wall Street lobbies. Or, more realistically, of alienating the affections of these parasites by pushing them in the direction of the Republicans. The estimable Bill Moyers made this same point on Real Time Friday night: as uncynical as this conscience of our generation normally is, he ventured the opinion that Obama has become convinced by Rahm Emanuel that Obama will need the campaign contributions from these three sources in 2012 in order to win again. Which seems odd, for a moment, when you consider how much money, and what a large percentage of his overall contributions, Obama raised from individuals in this last campaign. But then you think some more and it makes perfect, corrupt sense: Barack Obama knows now that those individual donors are not going to be there because he's turned into something very unanticipated, simply another politician who sees his highest goal as getting reelected, as opposed to one dedicated to the substance of his governance.

So Obama, instead of forcing the Republicans who want to kneecap his health care plan to begin on their own goal line (by presenting them with Single Payer, which he said during the campaign was his preferred approach), gave them the ball at midfield, by halfheartedly, sort of, once in a while, supporting the "public option." So the Republicans, backed up by hordes of uninformed Teabaggers and Dittoheads, as usual determined to support government policies (such as tax cuts for the wealthy) which have as their object the exact opposite effect from that which they think they're supporting, had only to neuter this contraption in order to render health care "reform" a dead letter. And anyone who takes the time to read the actual "content" of these various public options floating around the Capitol will quickly conclude that the Republicans have succeeded.

Paul Krugman todays muses that maybe the country has simply become ungovernable because of the influence of Big Money on the political process. That's one word to use, but the country is in fact being "governed," just not to the benefit of 90% of the population. This was the inevitable result of unbridled and unregulated capitalism, given its greatest impetus during the Reagan years. With the force of a natural law, heirarchical economic systems which have no effective counterweight in the form of a strong, central and regulating government inevitably skew wealth toward a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, and then the government itself becomes simply a vassal of Big Business interests until there is essentially an identity of purpose between wealthy elites and the politicians they control by funding their reelection campaigns. Such a process has happened many times before in world history, and it always ends the same way. At a certain point, the great "underclass" realize they've been screwed and the phony allegiances they feel to Democrats or the Republicans or the Nazis or the Politburo or the French aristocracy begin to fray, and they finally see what has happened. We're only at the stage now where demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, in a search simply for ratings and personal wealth and devoid of any real talent or moral content, can nevertheless exploit the "political" differences and convince the uninformed and dispossessed that Obama is in some way both a "Socialist" and a "Fascist" (Americans are not big on historical accuracy), and that health care reform, which this poor white trash who show up at these town halls armed to the teeth need more than anyone, is a government plot to snuff their grandmothers. "Only a pawn in their game," sang Bob Dylan. Yes indeed.